Tuesday, September 20, 2011

September 2011: Free-to-Play

There has always been free-to-play games, but the question remains: How do we earn money? Unless you are a non-profit or a philanthropist, that money issue will always come up.

With casual games and shareware, the try-before-you-buy system of downloading the trial or demo version has been a proven method. There has also been tiered membership, divvying up perks to be added to each tier, from basic free up to the deluxe premium package. And of course, we are familiar with the ad-supported Web sites and games. No doubt some companies have tried to combine one or two of these business models.

Lately, though, microtransactional games are all the rage. They are not new, since Asian companies were happy to charge for every little thing in a free-to-play environment, but people were unsure if this would work in the Western economies. Facebook showed that people were more than willing to shell out cash for little birthday icons.

But as these types of games flourish on the iPhone and social networks, there are now more articles about aghast parents dealing with bills for $1400 or more, all spent on virtual dog biscuits or Smurfberries.

Some things to think about:
  • Are there any special considerations when designing a free-to-play game?  Does it matter if it's ad-supported or microtransactional?
  • Do microtransactional games prey upon gamers' (or children's) addictions?
  • What is the best way to deal with ads in an ad-supported game?  Should they surround the game or be inside the game?
  • Do you still maintain a subscription model while allowing for free-to-play and pay-as-you-go?
  • How do you make free-to-play players feel just as valued as paying customers?
  • Are there any community headaches that pertain particularly to free-to-play games?


Anthony said...

I don't think preying upon addictions is inherent to the microtransaction business model if that is what you mean by the second bullet point, but there are certainly some that do so.

You make free customers feel valued by valuing them. They are marketers that work for free and help make a more populated and interesting world for your paying people. Don't try to make an experience that is aggravating and make them feel like you're trying to force them to upgrade. Give them a fun game and offer aesthetic customization options or let them get new things quicker if they pay. Ideally let them also work in-game to achieve some of what you can pay for even if it is more efficient to just pay. League of legends does this and It was great. I'd never have started playing if it was a pay game but I played for free because friends were and eventually started buying small things in game.

The particular headache for free-to-play games are things like griefers and smurfs. For a game where you have to pay you at least have someone who has invested into the game keeping out some people but when the game is free people with no interest in the game what so ever can hop in, make an account and harass people and then quit, starting the process over with a new account next time.

It's not an intractable problem just one that designers and developers need to be aware of and prepare for as they make thier systems.

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